Ollie, Ollie, Oxen Free

Is it safe?

Dear Word Detective: Don’t know if I’m spelling this correctly, but I’d like to know the origin of the “Ollie, Ollie, Oxen Free” shouted by children playing the ancient game of tag. — Carol.

Ah yes, the ancient game of tag. Isn’t there an iPhone app for that now? Apparently there’s now one for solving Sudoku puzzles. You’ll notice that I didn’t say for “playing” Sudoku. No, with this “app,” you just point your phone’s camera at the puzzle and it uses artificial intelligence to solve it for you. Whee! Incidentally, the American Dialect Society (ADS), the linguists and scholars who study and document American English as it is actually spoken, voted at their annual meeting this month to declare “app” (short for “application,” a software program that runs on a computer, telephone, etc.) as the ADS Word of the Year for 2010. Runners-up included “nom” (“Onomatopoetic form connoting eating, especially pleasurably”), “junk” in a number of senses, “Wikileaks,” and “trend” as a verb. “Refudiate” won the “Most Unnecessary” category hands down.

I was never a big fan of playing “Tag” because I was a small, weedy child and consequently spent a disproportionate amount of time being “It.” “Hide and Seek,” where children hide from the child designated “It,” at least gave me the opportunity to get some reading done behind the couch. It’s when “It” finds one of the hiders, of course, that the found child becomes “It” and the game restarts. “Ollie ollie oxen free” is traditionally shouted at this point by the old “It” to let the other players know that they should emerge from their hiding places and start the game over. So the “Ollie” shout is really from Hide and Seek, not Tag.

“Ollie ollie oxen free” is part of what Iona and Peter Opie, in their wonderful book “The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren” (Oxford University Press, 1959), called “the code of oral legislation” among children. The Opies studied and interviewed children in England, Scotland and Ireland just after World War II, meticulously documenting the customs and vocabulary of their rituals, games, and traditions. What they found was a rich culture that in some cases dated back to the Middle Ages and originated in adult customs at that time. For instance, a child in 20th century England would say “barley” to gain temporary respite from a schoolyard fight, a term that comes from the custom of Medieval knights offering their opponent the opportunity to “parley” or “parlez” (French for “talk”), i.e., ask for mercy. Thus childhood, at the time the Opies studied it, had become a linguistic museum of British history. Today, as we say today, probably not so much.

In the case of “Ollie ollie oxen free” and its many variants, we have a mutated form of the original “all clear” signal. This was probably something like “All’s out come in free” or “All ye out come in free,” meaning that anyone still hiding (“out”) can now come back into the group without fear (“free”) of being tagged “It.” Since the game “Hide and Seek” itself is at least four centuries old, there’s been plenty of time for that original phrase to be filtered through small ears clogged with dirt and come out almost unrecognizable.

The “Ollie” of “Ollie ollie oxen free” is almost certainly the “All ye” reshaped to take the form of “Ollie,” short for the proper name “Oliver.” The “oxen” is classic folk etymology, where a word or words that sound unfamiliar to the listener (“come in,” in this case), especially when slurred, are given the form of a more familiar word (“oxen”). Of course, many British customs have jumped the pond to the US and Canada, and “Ollie ollie oxen free” is well known in America, often with regional variations. In areas of the Midwest settled by immigrants from Norway, for instance, one popular form is “Ole Ole Olsen’s free.”

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